Steel scrap radioactivity and radiation raises concerns in India

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NY Times, on the back of Mayapuri incident, has highlighted the extant problem of radioactive substances in scrap in India.

For years, India and other developing countries, particularly China, have imported different categories of waste from developed countries as a lucrative, if controversial, business. Critics have blamed the importing of discarded computer equipment, known as toxic e waste, for long term chronic health problems among workers in scrapyards, as well as environmental damage.

But the Mayapuri problem represents a potentially graver threat. At a time when India and other developing countries are importing growing amounts of scrap metal, partly to help meet rising domestic demand for steel, experts say inadequate monitoring at ports and a lack of international standards make it easier for radioactive materials and other dangerous objects to cross borders.

India has proved especially porous. Four years ago, 10 foundry workers in the city of Ghaziabad were killed by exploding military shells, apparently from Iran, hidden in a container of scrap metal.

Last year, several containers of Indian steel were stopped at European ports after monitors detected high radiation levels; Indian foundries had fabricated the steel, partly, by melting scrap metal that turned out to be contaminated with Cobalt 60, the same radioactive isotope detected in the Mayapuri episode. It is commonly used in food irradiation machinery as well as for radiotherapy, as in cancer therapy machines.

Indian authorities say the country’s guidelines on importing scrap meet international standards, yet enforcement and monitoring is inadequate. A government plan to install radiation monitors at ports and airports is behind schedule.

Mr Didier Louvat a nuclear waste specialist with the International Atomic Energy Agency said that the Mayapuri case was the most serious global instance of radiation exposure since 2006. He said the IAEA’s nuclear safety review in 2009 found 196 nuclear or radiological events including those involving scrap, compared with 140 in 2007.

Many countries, including India, have laws for controlling and registering radioactive sources, but Mr Louvat said the lack of an international standard created loopholes that required tight monitoring at borders or ports to screen for orphaned radioactive sources that slipped into scrap containers.